last night on a late-night TV show (Colbert), the evening’s musical guest (the barenaked ladies) played the theme song of another TV show (the big bang theory) — as its scheduled performance number. Big Bang Theory — a series much beloved — is ending and its audience mourns its passing. This musical performance was part of that communal mourning ritual. Broadcast of this performance summoned the tribe. The convening continues indefinitely on YouTube where a video recording of the occasion was posted soon after the event itself.
algorithms which can so precisely target us with messages tailored to our prejudices and fears could conceivably channel challenges to those prejudices and fears with the same precision.
Such are our tribal commemorations nowadays. Time was, people would physically gather. Some might travel for days, and their provisions would include sustenance for their journey, plus an offering to share: party food! People came together, sorting themselves by age and gender, and they ate and danced and sang and prayed and partied — together. But now, we lie supine with our feet toward the electronic hearth, gazing into the blue light that comes from the little slab on the wall, or the box on the dresser. We do not dance together. We lie passive, watching the ritual over the tops of our bare toes, from bed. We participate in these “national moments” largely alone, unless we have an overnight companion.
These community occasions now engage us as performances we witness, not as rituals we enact together. The first such occasion that I personally remember clearly is JFK’s funeral, and all the surrounding occasions. It went on for days. I was eight, and my own life also continued, but these events transpired over a weekend (he died on a Friday morning in Texas), so school was out and once my chores were done I had nothing more compelling on my schedule. So I watched it all, and I remember it clearly.
I know I was also alive when John Glenn went up to space and came down again, and when Alan Shepard went up and around and down. These events, were also televised (at least the earth-bound bits), and also widely witnessed. So this practice of remote communion has been part of our tribal life for my whole individual life, and probably longer.
What is new-ish, these days, is the reach and the granularity of “one-on-one mass media” — that is, the capacity of the Internet to open routes from one soul to another, from one mind to other like minds, regardless of physical proximity and regardless of time. “Asynchronous communication” means we can leave messages for each other; we don’t even have to be in the same virtual space at the same moment to “share” an experience.
Daily we witness the impact of algorithms that can target individual readers with messages that are precisely tuned to the prejudices and fears that they have revealed through their own browsing behavior. Why can’t algorithms be implemented to precisely channel challenging ideas instead?
Equally, these tools also make it possible to avoid serendipitous contact with people who don’t share our views, who see the important things in life from a different vantage, through a different lens. It’s the difference between looking something up in a physical library, where you are subject to the enticements of the neighboring book on the shelf, and looking it up in Google, where you’ll get exactly what you came for in a list of citations in rank order according to how useful they have been to others with the same search objective. It is vastly easier, today, to avoid what we are not looking for, to weed out cognitive dissonance, to fill our time and our minds with information that corroborates our views and to filter out anything that challenges them.
Not all notions have the same grip on our psyches. Beliefs arising from our fears have a particularly tenacious hold, and seem to be more readily reinforced, more difficult to dislodge or undermine, than ideas we get that make us hopeful or optimistic, and that incline us to let down our guard. I suppose that apprehension, terror and fright are all tougher to break free of because we humans are wired to pay close attention to them, as an instinctive survival strategy.
But maybe this is the peril we can do something about at the source. Daily we witness the impact of algorithms that can target individual readers with messages that are precisely tuned to the prejudices and fears that they have revealed through their own browsing behavior. Why can’t algorithms be implemented to precisely channel challenging ideas instead? I wonder how things might be different if they did.